Americans and their cars have long been connected as a major element of national identity - the world's auto heads, if you will. The Chevy versus Ford rivalry that probably still permeates school bus conversations, the infatuation with NASCAR racing, the notoriety of the Daytona 500 are all testament to the importance of the automobile in a country where there are more cars per capita than in any other nation on the planet.This phenomenon grew out of, if not the invention of the internal combustion engine, then certainly the first application of mass production techniques. Then, after World War II, came the mass consumption of those behemoths which culminated latterly in tons of chrome and wing tips. Dinosaurs which still rumble along the streets of Havana, Cuba and generate nostalgic gasps on today's highways as they convoy to and from 'classic' car shows.
They were built in a protected market, unchallenged by the miniaturized conveyances made in Europe. Who wanted a four cylinder bubble when you could buy for the same price, or better, something with a 300 plus horsepower V8 that plied Americas vastness like a living room on wheels? With gas at give-away prices, efficiency didn't figure into the design calculus, allowing form to dominate consideration of function. The bigger the better, the fancier, the faster, the more Americans were told by advertisers, that was what they had to have. Consumers ate it up.
This culturally defined image of the car remains deeply ingrained in the American psyche. And while inroads may have been made as a consequence of successive gas crunches, resulting in successful foreign competition, the resurgence of the behemoth in the last decade suggests Americans have not yet shed their conviction that bigger is better. Manipulating this inherent preference, instilled by relentless commercial propaganda, suited American automakers because profitability per unit of production was directly related to size. Bigger cars generated bigger profits.
But due to its now legendary shortsightedness, Detroit failed to appreciate the aesthetic shift going on in the car-buyer's mind. The move toward Europeanization and the growing significance in the overall market place of brand-name identification. (I use the euro-centric term because the Japanese, and the other Asian producers lifted their design ethos from Europe.) So this rift between producer and purchase, arose not solely as a reaction to gas prices, but out of growing insistence that expressions of mass consumer preference also define socio-economic status. What applied to jeans - Levis versus Calvins - worked for cars.
Europeanization did not entirely escape the Big Three's design mentality. Remember the fanfare accompanying launch of the Euro-designed Ford Taurus, for example. But fewer and fewer were the folks who, if they had $40,000 to spend on a car, would choose to boast they had purchased a Caddi' when they could, for the same price, sport a Merc'. They weren't just buying horse power and capacious seats any more, they wanted cache. And in a market that is largely driven by age-defined aspiration - first the clunker, then the sporty thing, then the family wagon, then the luxury-mobile - the trickle-down effect is incredibly significant. To sell, even the lowliest of models, they had, more and more, to incorporate the 'feel' of the posh-mobiles.
Ignoring cost-based economic considerations that impair Detroit's ability to match these new-found tastes, I can illustrate the point by dredging up an automotive comparison that engaged me even as a kid. But first, I should note that while Americans may deserve their reputation as the world's auto heads, Brits are just as obsessed. Its just that our aesthetic values, especially as they relate to cars, emphasize refinement and performance in small packages. Surely, the definition of global automotive demand for the future.
Back to the comparison. The top-of-the-line British car was always the largely hand built Rolls-Royce. The only American autos that came close were those stamped out by Cadillac. It mattered not that Rolls used Chrysler transmissions and could only be afforded by a rarified clientele. As car-loving kids we considered the suggestion that they were in the same league, laughable. I imagine our American counterparts would have been insulted. But with the arrival of Lexus' and BMWs to the American automotive scene, the distinction, in terms of refinement and performance, is indisputable.
Judging by recent output from Detroit it is far from clear that the Big Three get it. I fear the mind set of Motor City's executives is stuck in times gone by. If so, all the bailout money that can be wrung out of Congress will be wasted because demand for what made American cars distinctive is disappearing as fast as American taste goes global.
Tav Murray lives in Christiana. His e-mail address is email@example.com.